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My little nerdy power trip

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Work in a room full of poisons
W Daniel Hillis Scientist
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And I was in this chemistry building and I was... The room that I was in, everything on the shelves was incredibly poisonous. And I couldn't figure out, and occasionally, you know, some strange smell would appear and the chemist would come in and smell it, decide if I needed to evacuate or not. But everything was poisonous except for one thing which was this heavy water was... There was deuterated water, which I later found out is very subtly poisonous. But I finally asked, like, 'What was the guy that used to be here?' And it was like, 'Oh, he was a toxicologist that spent his whole life looking for the perfect poison. And then when he finally found it, he took it. And killed himself.' And that was the guy whose office I inherited with all this chemicals.

W Daniel Hillis (b. 1956) is an American inventor, scientist, author and engineer. While doing his doctoral work at MIT under artificial intelligence pioneer, Marvin Minsky, he invented the concept of parallel computers, that is now the basis for most supercomputers. He also co-founded the famous parallel computing company, Thinking Machines, in 1983 which marked a new era in computing. In 1996, Hillis left MIT for California, where he spent time leading Disney’s Imagineers. He developed new technologies and business strategies for Disney's theme parks, television, motion pictures, Internet and consumer product businesses. More recently, Hillis co-founded an engineering and design company, Applied Minds, and several start-ups, among them Applied Proteomics in San Diego, MetaWeb Technologies (acquired by Google) in San Francisco, and his current passion, Applied Invention in Cambridge, MA, which 'partners with clients to create innovative products and services'. He holds over 100 US patents, covering parallel computers, disk arrays, forgery prevention methods, and various electronic and mechanical devices (including a 10,000-year mechanical clock), and has recently moved into working on problems in medicine. In recognition of his work Hillis has won many awards, including the Dan David Prize.

Listeners: George Dyson Christopher Sykes

Christopher Sykes is an independent documentary producer who has made a number of films about science and scientists for BBC TV, Channel Four, and PBS.

Tags: poison, chemicals, office, toxicologist, smell

Duration: 1 minute, 4 seconds

Date story recorded: October 2016

Date story went live: 08 August 2017